Brow Beat

How the Wrinkle in Time Movie Departs From Madeleine L’Engle’s Novel

At left: The Wrinkle in Time book jacked. At right: A scene from the film.
Ava DuVernay and her screenwriters made some significant changes in adapting the Madeleine L’Engle novel into a Disney blockbuster.
Left: Book jacket. Right: Disney. Illustration by Slate.

Though younger moviegoers seem to be enjoying Ava DuVernay’s adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time, many critics and other adults have been left scratching their heads. Though the film is not without its virtues, it’s often more perplexing than delightful. As our own Aisha Harris put it in her review, the film “can’t quite find its groove.”

Literary purists may be inclined to believe that the DuVernay film falters due to departures from Madeleine L’Engle’s novel. But just how different is the movie adaptation? Here’s a breakdown of the similarities and differences between the two.

The Premise

The film is set in the modern day, in what looks like California, while the novel takes place in ’60s New England. However, the basic premise is the same. Meg Murry, an insecure teen, is roped into an impossible adventure when three beings whisk her and her precocious younger brother away to save their missing father, Dr. Alex Murry, from an interdimensional battle of good vs. evil.

There are, however, some differences in the way the film executes this basic story. Mr. Murry is a public figure in the movie, his disappearance notable enough to make the news, whereas in the book he’s just the subject of small-town gossip. And while in the book Meg’s younger brother Charles Wallace is gifted—perhaps telepathic or supernaturally empathic—and is the one to introduce Meg to the Misses, he has no knowledge of his father’s whereabouts or the interdimensional battle at hand. The movie, however, paints Charles Wallace as a co-conspirator with the Misses who is eager to pull Meg into their plot.

The movie Misses also start their quest by looking for Dr. Murry and incidentally find out he is on the dark planet Camazotz, whereas the book Misses begin their journey with the knowledge that that is where Dr. Murry is and reluctantly show the children their father’s dire situation. The overall effect is that the Misses are somewhat more whimsical and hapless in the movie than in the book. In the novel they are often grave, wise characters. Speaking of which …

The Misses

Though the book outlines the Misses as older, all-knowing (but still vaguely female and humanoid) beings, the movie ages them down and glitters them up. Mrs. Whatsit, played by Reese Witherspoon, gets the most divergent characterization. Movie Mrs. Whatsit retains her book traits of youthfulness and naïveté—though the movie plays those up quite a lot—while her novelistic compassion is swapped for callousness, or at least an ignorance of human social norms. The novel introduces Mrs. Whatsit as a gray-haired “tramp,” whereas the movie debuts her in a gown. Movie Mrs. Whatsit is coquettish and immature. While in the book, Mrs. Whatsit’s love saves Meg from certain doom, the movie version spends almost her entire time on screen ridiculing and deriding the insecure protagonist. In the book, Mrs. Whatsit shape-shifts into an insanely beautiful, centaur-esque being and the kids fly with her on the planet Uriel. In the movie, the centaurlike creature has been replaced by a giant leaf of sentient lettuce.

In contrast, Mindy Kaling’s Mrs. Who and Oprah’s Mrs. Which are more faithful to the book. Oprah switches Mrs. Which’s raspy voice and translucent appearance for inhuman height and jewel-encrusted eyebrows, but she retains the character’s mature persona. Kaling’s Mrs. Who keeps the character’s penchants for quoting and sewing, albeit with a modern twist, and also sticks to English far more than her literary inspiration.

The Murrys

The movie Murrys differ from their book counterparts as well. One area where DuVernay chose to depart from the book is in the casting. Though there’s nothing in the book that says Meg isn’t mixed-race (she’s just described as being “plain,” having messy hair, and wearing glasses), her mother, Dr. Kate Murry, is described as having “flaming red hair, creamy skin, and violet eyes.” In the book, their father’s skin color is never specified.

Though the Murrys’ physical attributes ultimately don’t affect the plot—if anything, putting Meg’s insecurities in a racial context is an improvement, giving her journey to self-acceptance an added layer of meaning—some of their characterizations in the movie differ wildly from those in the book. Youngster Charles Wallace is the standout here. While the book’s Charles Wallace is essentially a miniature adult, movie Charles Wallace is essentially a kid with an expanded vocabulary. Book Charles Wallace never speaks at school, preferring people to think he’s stupid rather than freakishly smart, whereas movie Charles Wallace screams across a recess playground. Book Charles Wallace is precocious and occasionally arrogant, but he’s a unique foil to firebrand Meg because of his measured, mature approach to things. The movie Charles Wallace is much more animated, for better or for worse.

Meg’s down-on-herself attitude is given more emphasis in the movie, and other characters suggest that it stems from her father’s disappearance, whereas in the book this connection isn’t made quite so explicitly. Her academic superpower in the book is also math (she can give you the square root of prime numbers off the top of her head), not physics.

Other Characters

The Happy Medium, an exuberant woman in the book, is played in the movie by a straight-faced Zach Galifianakis. He also has a strange, apparently romantic relationship with Mrs. Whatsit, which was invented for the movie.

Twins Sandy and Dennys, Meg and Charles Wallace’s popular and normal brothers, no longer exist in the movie. Veronica, a mean-girl character with body-image issues, has been added to antagonize Meg.

Calvin’s characterization is fairly similar from book to movie, although his flaming-red hair and freckles are gone and his abusive mother has been swapped for an abusive father. He also has 10 siblings in the book, which is maybe a ’60s-era joke about Irish people. He’s got a similar gift to Charles Wallace that is only hinted at in the movie. Calvin is just as awkwardly obsessed with Meg in the movie as he is in the book.

Aunt Beast, a furry, eyeless tentacle creature that saves Meg from being swallowed by the Black Thing in the book, only gets a joking nod in the movie. The whole chunk of the book where Meg, Calvin, and Dr. Alex recoup on Aunt Beast’s planet before once again battling the It (which, on the page, is rendered instead as “IT”) is cut from the movie.

The concept of the sandwich-wielding, red-eyed gentleman as a proxy for the It, although somewhat displaced in the movie, is more or less the same as in the book.

Zach Galifianakis plays the Happy Medium in A Wrinkle in Time.
Zach Galifianakis as the Not-So-Happy Medium.

The Science

The movie at once attempts to legitimize the science of tessering and makes it more sentimental. A scene featuring the Drs. Murry at a NASA conference attempts to turn the book’s top secret Murry project into a very public scientific phenomenon. Meanwhile, the movie’s idea that “the frequency is love” muddles whether tessers are a matter of quantum physics or self-esteem. In the movie, the kids end up on Camazotz because Meg somehow pulls them there by sheer force of will despite the Misses’ desire to tesser them home and speak with their mother. At the end of the film, once Meg has completed her hero’s quest for light and self-confidence, Mrs. Which encourages Meg to “start the tesser.” The resulting implication is that traveling between time and space is a matter of believing in yourself rather than a matter of science. In the book, meanwhile, only the Misses and Dr. Alex can tesser, the former because they are billions of years old and the latter because he is obsessively dedicated to the subject.

Everybody Hates Meg

While book Meg is far from perfect and explicitly doesn’t like herself, everyone in the book seems to love her unconditionally. She is occasionally chastised by Aunt Beast or one of the Misses for being immature or succumbing to dark thoughts. In contrast, movie Meg comes off as an overall burden on everyone around her. She gets in fights with her mother that are absent from the book. Charles Wallace is constantly apologizing for Meg’s interdimensional faux pas, especially to Mrs. Whatsit, who appears to hate her.

Interestingly enough, the book dedicates a lot of time to Meg’s resentment toward her father, where the movie primarily focuses on their tearful reunion and barely acknowledges any conflict in their relationship.


In the movie, Mrs. Which refers nonspecifically to the Black Thing as “Camazotz,” whereas in the book, the two entities are described as separate. The Black Thing is the embodiment of evil, and Camazotz is a planet that has been entirely seized by the Black Thing. In the book, the It is presented as a human brain on a dais, while in the movie, it seems to be a whole gloomy world of firing synapses and human-size neurons.

In the book, the kids move through the planet as they would any Earthly space, whereas in the movie they jump from place to place. The forest, tornado, and beach scenes were all added by the movie.

The Climax

In the book, Meg reunites with her father and brings him back to Calvin and Charles Wallace, after which Charles Wallace punishes them by bringing them all to the It. All four of them meet the It, and Dr. Alex has to pull them out before Meg is overtaken by darkness. Dr. Alex accidentally tessers them to Aunt Beast’s planet, where they are forced to recoup and try to communicate with the aliens until the Misses find them. Once the Misses find them, they tell Meg she must go save Charles Wallace because she has something the It does not. Meg confronts the It and is able to save Charles Wallace with her love—the one thing she has that the It does not.

In the movie, Charles Wallace is dragging Dr. Alex, Meg, and Calvin to the It when Dr. Alex tries to transport himself, Meg, and Calvin out of meeting the It. Meg avoids the tesser by sheer force of will, insisting that they can’t leave Charles Wallace behind. As a result, she finds herself battling the It, which tries to tempt her over to the dark side by promising he can make her popular. The It presents Meg with a version of herself in trendy clothing and straightened hair, but Meg refuses, insisting that she loves herself despite her flaws because that’s what Charles Wallace does. Meg and Charles Wallace break free and, after some congratulations from the Misses, Meg transports them home for a tearful family reunion.

Lena Wilson is Slate’s culture intern.